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(Question has been modified for space and clarity.)
I’m caught in a love triangle. Two girls are in love with me, and I love them both back. But I think I love one more than the other.
I have been dating one girl for four months, and I love her to death.
The other girl was my best friend — then she told me she loved me. We continued our platonic relationship for awhile before I stopped it, because I felt like I was cheating on my girlfriend. My platonic friend didn’t take it well. She was so angry and upset that she threatened to kill herself.
I felt so bad that I resumed the platonic relationship for a bit, but then broke it off again. At which point, this girl started dating someone else. This made me jealous, and I don’t know why.
I love my girlfriend more than anything, but I just want everyone to be happy.
On top of this, when I think about my future, I don’t see myself in a relationship. And honestly, I don’t see myself getting married. I have never thought of it as something I wanted to do.
But then my girlfriend came around and I fell in love. And I felt it wouldn’t be fair to keep her from being in a relationship just because I didn’t want to be in one. I didn’t want to make her unhappy.
It seems that everyone else’s happiness matters more than mine does. I don’t want to break either of the girls’ hearts. What should I do?
–Planetary.Burnout; Mesa, AZ
I recognize a lot of myself in your words.
Like you, I try to be empathic and can be easily guilt-tripped. I have an affinity for being alone. And there was a time when I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in a relationship, much less get married.
Of course, I was never in a love triangle — forget a second girl, I had enough trouble getting a second date — but during my dating days, I dealt with a lot of what you’re dealing with now.
What I identified with most, though, was your people-pleaser persona.
I’m a people-pleaser too.
“People pleaser” is a label that often carries a negative connotation, a synonym for pushovers, desperates and wimps.
In many ways, though, it’s been a positive for me. It’s helped make me a loyal friend, dependable employee and devoted son and husband. There are worse things than being considerate of others’ feelings.
That said, too much chocolate cake can make you sick.
In too many interactions, my underlying motivation is to appease. It doesn’t matter who I’m talking to, I want to say and do the right thing in order to affect the other person in the right way.
It’s why, when I’m with friends or family, I rarely pick where to eat or what music we listen to. I’m scared of subjecting anyone to something they might not like. I’d rather live with their choices than worry about them being dissatisfied with mine.
I’ve been this way for so long, it’s become second nature. I’m not even aware I’m doing it as I’m doing it.
And I’m not sure you are, either.
You’ve got a lot going on, from love triangles to a longing to be alone. And I believe your people-pleasing mentality is at the source of it all.
Here are three steps you can take to cut through the confusion, to cast aside expectations and get reacquainted with what you — and you alone — want in life and love…
1. Let yourself off the hook
I used to help manage a summer camp.
In March 2012, I got a job offer I wanted to take. But it was one of the busiest times of the year for the person in my position, and I didn’t want to leave the camp in a lurch.
Fortunately, I worked out a compromise with my current and future bosses:
I’d stay on full time with the camp through the summer, while also working part time for the new company.
In hindsight, I’m happy I handled it this way.
But I hate that I felt I had to handle it this way.
That’s the rub of being a people-pleaser:
On one hand, you go above and beyond to help.
On the other, you’re consumed by this self-imposed pressure to be everything to everybody.
I was convinced that if I quit camp, there’d be no buses to transport the kids, no staff to supervise them and no money to pay for any of it.
And, of course, I was wrong. Turns out I wasn’t that important.
The second I left, the camp did what anybody would do: It regrouped; it reorganized; it moved on. And in my absence, it’s grown stronger than ever.
The same is true of the other two points of your love triangle.
It’s noble you want what’s best for these two girls. But when you’re so focused on everybody else, you lose sight of yourself.
It is not your job to be these girls’ caretaker. You are not responsible for their happiness. So stop trying to be.
2. Accept that not everyone has to like you
How I became a people-pleaser, I’m not sure.
A therapist once hypothesized that, as a young child, I interpreted the praise heaped upon me by my loving parents as a sort of blackmail: Keep doing stuff that earns our approval, or we’ll stop loving you.
As off the wall as this sounds, it’s the most logical theory I’ve heard.
And while I’ve chipped away at it, that mindset seizes control more than I’d prefer. There’s nothing like being governed by the thought-process of a 3-year-old.
People-pleasers don’t just like being liked; they need to be liked. They need your acceptance. And they’re willing to do just about anything to get it.
You said you’ve never wanted to be in a serious relationship. Yet here you are juggling two of them. All so you can give these girls what they want.
Yes, if you break up with your girlfriend, and you cut off your platonic friend, their hearts are going to be broken. And yes, on some level, they’re going to hate you for that.
But that’s OK. You’ll survive. Not everyone has to like you, and not everyone is going to like you. So there’s no use in trying to make that happen.
Your self-worth doesn’t rest in the hands of others; it rests in yours.
3. Take care of yourself
“But then my girlfriend came around and I fell in love. And I felt it wouldn’t be fair to keep her from being in a relationship just because I didn’t want to be in one. I didn’t want to make her unhappy.”
You’re in a relationship because it’d be unfair to keep your girlfriend out of one.
Yet, ironically, by being in a relationship you don’t want to be in, you’re causing even more unfairness.
You’re not being fair to your girlfriend because she’s either going to get a) short-changed because you’re not as invested as she is, or b) crushed when you can no longer carry out this charade.
And you’re not being fair to yourself because it means you’re living on somebody else’s terms.
Which is why you wrote:
“It seems that everyone else’s happiness matters more than mine.”
This is the realization that inevitably depletes every people-pleaser. How could it not?
It’s probably why your screen name includes the word “burnout,” and why you want to be alone. After awhile, the burden of appeasement gets too difficult to bear. It becomes much easier to avoid.
It’s clear you have the best of intentions, and you’re only trying to do what’s right.
But in the long run, you can’t make anyone else happy if you’re not happy yourself.
What do you think? What advice would you give this reader? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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